Uneven Development, Inter-scalar Tensions, and the Politics of Decentralization in South Korea

Authors


Bae-Gyoon Park (geopbg@snu.ac.kr), Department of Geography Education, Seoul National University, San 56-1, Sillim-Dong, Gwanak-Gu, Seoul 151-748, Korea.

Abstract

Abstract

In this article, I examine how the spatiality of the state and its associated territorial politics can have an impact on the spatial and scalar restructuring of the state. Building on recent theoretical developments on state space, this article examines how territorial politics can be organized under the particular spatiality of the state, and how that particular form of territorial politics can have an impact on the future restructuring of state spatiality. In particular, by focusing on the spatial processes of state restructuring in South Korea, I will attempt to conceptualize the ways in which the spatiality of top-down regulatory processes led by the state can generate inter-scalar tensions between the national and the local; this, in turn, results in the downward rescaling of the state. More specifically, the empirical focus is on how the processes of decentralization in South Korea have been shaped by the influences of various kinds of territorial politics (for example, inter-scalar tensions between the national and the local, territorialized party politics, etc.) that occur within the context of uneven regional development stemming from the spatial selectivity of state regulation.

Résumé

Cet article examine comment la dimension spatiale de l'Etat et les politiques territoriales afférentes peuvent affecter la restructuration de l'Etat en termes d'espace et d'échelle. A partir de théories récentes sur l'espace de l'Etat, est examinée la manière dont les politiques territoriales peuvent être organisées compte tenu de la spatialité spécifique de l'Etat,et dont cette forme spécifique de politique territoriale peut agir sur la restructuration future de la spatialité de l'Etat. En s'intéressant aux processus spatiaux de restructuration de l'État en Corée du Sud, ce travail tente de concevoir comment la dimension spatiale des processus réglementaires verticaux menés par l'Etat peut générer des tensions entre les échelons national et local, ce qui entraîne une réduction d'échelle de l'Etat. Plus précisément, l'intérêt empirique porte sur la façon dont les processus de décentralisation sud-coréens ont subi l'influence de diverses sortes de politiques territoriales (comme les tensions entre échelons national et local, les politiques de parti territorialisées, etc.) existant dans le cadre d'un développement régional inégal issu de la sélectivité spatiale de la réglementation étatique.

Introduction

In recent social science literature, there has been an increasing number of challenges to the naturalization of state space, in which state spatiality has been seen as a pre-given and relatively unchanging feature of modernity (Brenner et al., 2003). In this context, one emergent research agendum has been concerned with the production and transformation of state space. More specifically, an increasing number of social scientists have paid attention to the restructuring of territorially demarcated forms of state power, the recent decentring of nationally scaled forms of state activity, and the effects of newly emergent political and state spaces on the nature of urban and regional governance.

This new research trend has made an enormous contribution to the understanding of state spatiality. In particular, theoretical discussions on the ‘political economy of scale’, which have been developed by critical human geographers such as Swyngedouw (1997), Smith (1993), Brenner (1998) and others, can provide very helpful theoretical frameworks for understanding the ways in which the scalar organization of the state under capitalism is socially produced and periodically transformed. Also, the idea of ‘the hollowing out of the state’ or ‘glocalization’ has come to be increasingly accepted in urban and regional studies (Jessop, 1994; Swyngedouw, 1997).

As Cox (2003) points out, however, the existing literature on the rescaling of the state tends to consider space or territory as something passive and reactive to political and economic changes and processes (for example, globalization, a shift from Fordism to post-Fordism, etc.). In particular, the existing literature barely considers how regulatory processes can be territorialized, and how these territorialized regulatory processes can have an impact on the scalar restructuring of the state. Indeed, territorial politics (for example, politics of regionalism, center–periphery conflicts, etc.) have been an important driving force behind the state's scalar restructuring of its division of labor (especially the devolution of state power) in many countries. Yet, little attention has been paid to this aspect in many of the works on scalar restructuring of the state. The literature is also limited in conceptualizing the diverse and concrete ways in which spatial and scalar restructuring of capitalist states takes place in various historical, political and social contexts. This limitation is related to the fact that the bulk of studies conducted on the rescaling of the state have focused on North American and European examples, although there have been several exceptional studies on scalar restructuring in non-Western contexts (Jessop and Sum, 2000; Park, 2003a; Hu, 2005; Ma, 2005).

With these problem orientations — and inspired by recent theoretical developments in the strategic–relational view on the spatiality of the state (Jessop, 1990; Brenner, 2004; Jones and MacLeod, 2004; Goodwin et al., 2005) — I aim in this article to broaden our theoretical and empirical understanding of state spatiality by addressing spatial processes of state restructuring in the East Asian context. The East Asian developmental state has been seen as a distinct form of capitalist state in terms of its exceptionally active involvement in the regulation of private economic activities. Paying attention to this unique feature of the East Asian developmental state, I am interested in conceptualizing the ways in which the spatiality of top-down regulatory processes led by the developmental state and its associated territorial politics can impact scalar restructuring of the state.

Specifically, I will examine the historical processes involved in decentralization in South Korea by analyzing how the rescaling of the state has been shaped under the influences of various kinds of territorial politics (for example, inter-scalar tensions between the national and the local, territorialized party politics, etc.) that have occurred in the context of uneven regional development and the spatial selectivity of state regulation. Analytical focus will be given to answering the following questions: How has uneven regional development, conditioned by the spatial selectivity of state regulation, resulted in the rise of several kinds of territorial politics such as interregional conflicts, territorialized party politics, and the politics of regionalism in South Korea? How have these territorialized political processes facilitated the development of anti-centralist discourses and inter-scalar tensions between the national and the local? How have national–local tensions and their associated political activism brought about a regulatory bottleneck for the central government, which has been at least a partial driving force behind the decentralization of state power?

Theoretical background

Theoretical discussions on state space

Early works on the rescaling of the state, strongly influenced by the regulation approach, had a tendency to view the scalar configurations of the state as being determined by wider regulatory processes. According to the ‘glocalization’ and ‘hollowing-out’ theses (Jessop, 1994; Swyngedouw, 1997), for example, the transition from Fordism to post-Fordism and economic globalization resulted in the decline of national-scale regulatory processes, and in the increasing significance of more globalized or more localized regulatory processes. Even though this approach has provided valuable insights into the relation between regulatory needs for capital accumulation and the rescaling of the state, it has been recently criticized by Cox (2003) for its limitation in conceptualizing how the territoriality of regulation can influence the ways in which the scalar configurations of the state are reorganized.

Cox (2003) argues that the regulationist approach tends to view space and scale as passive or responsive to wider political, economic and regulatory changes. According to Cox, these views regard capital's enhanced international mobility as a main cause for scalar restructuring of the state. Specifically, capital's enhanced international mobility has been seen to impose territorial non-coincidence on the state, thereby weakening the state's capacity to implement macro-economic policies and regulate economic activities on a national scale. Hence, new regulatory fixes are pursued, and one outcome of these is scalar restructuring of the state. Under this perception, the fact has rarely been considered that spatial and scalar relations can have specific causal power of their own with respect to regulatory processes.

In addition, the regulationist approach to the rescaling of the state, which focuses on the changes in mode of accumulation and the needs of capital, can be held in contrast to recent works on the social construction of scale; the latter have provided much more nuanced explanations of the ways in which scales are materially and discursively constructed and restructured through complex strategic interactions among the social forces (for example, social movements, unions, growth coalitions, political parties, etc.) that emerge in power struggles (Smith, 1993; Agnew, 1997; Herod, 1997; Cox, 1998a; Marston, 2000). In relation to this, there has been increasing awareness that globalization is not the cause of the social and political changes we have experienced but is, indeed, an outcome of complex and contested interactions among diverse social, political and economic processes occurring at various geographical scales (MacKinnon and Phelps, 2001; Yeung, 2002; Park, 2003a; Cox, 2005).

Acknowledging these theoretical developments, and being strongly influenced by the strategic–relational approach to state theory provided by Jessop (1990), Brenner (2004) has recently provided a more advanced theoretical understanding of the spatiality of the state, and its scalar and territorial restructuring. In his book on state space, Brenner (2004) conceptualizes the spatiality of the state in terms of strategic interactions among diverse forces acting in and through the state; this has been mainly emphasized in Jessop's strategic–relational approach to state theory. Criticizing both the reductionist or essentialist Marxist understandings of the capitalist state and the Weberian view of the state, Jessop (1990) argues that the capitalist state needs to be seen as a site of struggle and contestation among diverse forces acting in and through the state — including different branches of the state, class forces, gender forces, regional interests, etc. — with regard to the nature of state intervention, political representation and ideological hegemony within capitalist society. Thus, the forms and actions of the state need to be viewed ‘as emergent, contingent, contested, and potentially unstable outcomes of ongoing sociopolitical struggles between opposed social forces’ (Brenner, 2004: 85). From this strategic–relational view, Jessop (1990: 260–62) sees the selectivity of the state — a tendency of the state to privilege particular social forces, interests and actors over others — not as a structurally pre-inscribed feature of the state system, but as an object and outcome of ongoing sociopolitical struggle. In this sense, state selectivity is an outcome of ‘the evolving relationship between inherited state structures and emergent political strategies intended to harness state institutions towards particular socioeconomic projects’ (Brenner, 2004: 87).

Building on the concept of ‘strategic selectivity’ suggested by Jessop, Brenner (2004) tries to spatialize the state theory by focusing on the ‘spatial selectivity’ of the state, which refers to the processes of ‘spatial privileging and articulation’ through which state policies are differentiated across territorial space in order to target particular geographical zones and scales (Jones, 1997; Brenner, 2004: 90). In this sense, he sees the spatiality of the state not as being permanently fixed but as a site, generator and product of political strategies, thereby representing an emergent, strategically selective and politically contested process (Brenner, 2004: 89, 90). More specifically, he argues that ‘the territorial coherence and interscalar coordination of state institutions and policies . . . can be established only through the mobilization of political strategies intended to influence the form, structure, and internal differentiation of the state space’ (Brenner, 2004: 90). Based on this view, he sees the geographies of statehood as the outcome of a continual and dialectical interplay between (1) inherited patterns (for example, territorial partitionings, scalar configurations, etc.) of state spatial organization; and (2) emergent state spatial projects and strategies that aim to modify or reshape the entrenched spatial form of the state (Brenner, 2003: 202; Brenner, 2004: 93).

Building on this, I emphasize that (1) the pre-existing structure of the state's spatial organization and practices (including the state's scale division of labor, urban and regional policies, spatial selectivity, etc.) can have a significant impact on the ways in which a newly constructed spatial form of the state, including the state's scalar configurations, is shaped; and (2) these structural influences are transformed through dialectical interactions with emerging political projects or strategies to change the existing spatiality of the state. This abstract conceptualization, however, needs to be more concretely elaborated. Especially, it requires more detailed explanations of the causal mechanisms through which a new spatiality of the state is formed under the influences of the dialectical relationship between the existing spatiality of the state and the emerging political forces to change state spatiality.

In order to address this dialectical relation more concretely, this article specifically focuses on the downward rescaling of the state. On the basis of his abstract theoretical discussions on state space, Brenner (2004) suggested that the downward rescaling of the state in Western European countries has been related to the change from the spatial logic of the Keynesian era — which aimed at centralization of state regulatory capacities and more balanced regional growth — to new post-Keynesian state spatial projects, which have attempted to redirect productive capacities and infrastructural investments into the most globally competitive city-regions, and to equip major urban regions with place-specific forms of state administration and purpose-specific, customized regulatory arrangements; this is a switch that fits nicely with some forms of ‘decentralization’. Some may interpret this thesis in a functionalist way; they may view the rise of the state's new spatial strategy as requiring the decentralization of state power, thereby resulting in the downward rescaling of the state. As Jessop (1990) emphasized in his strategic–relational theory of the state, however, such a functional unity in the state form is neither pre-given nor necessary. Likewise, Brenner (2004: 90–4) also pointed out that the state form, state projects and state strategies are distinguished, and are all equally fundamental dimensions of a state's spatial configurations under capitalism; hence, they cannot be reduced to any one of them.

In this sense, it needs to be pointed out that decentralization of state power should not be attributed to the rise of state spatial policies targeting strategic urban and regional centers for enhancing global competitive advantages. Logically, a strategy that privileges certain strategic places for efficient economic growth does not necessarily require a decentralized form of the state. A highly centralized state can pursue the same spatial strategy as long as the central government is successful in either persuading or forcing the populace to accept the spatial selectivity of its policies. If there are particular socio-political conditions under which the central government is severely criticized for its selective spatial policies, however, then the highly centralized form of the state can be significantly challenged, and a more decentralized state structure can be demanded. In other words, the relationship between a spatial strategy that prioritizes spatially selective growth over more balanced regional development and the decentralized form of the state is contingent. In this sense, explaining the causal mechanism for decentralization of state power requires an understanding of the processes through which the scalar configurations of state institutions and their regulatory effects are politically contested, challenged and reconstructed through complex and dynamic interactions among diverse interests and ideas.

Territorial politics of regulation, inter-scalar tensions and rescaling of the state

Borrowing from Cox's (2003) critique of the regulationist approach to the rescaling of the state, I focus on the territorial politics of regulation in conceptualizing the rescaling of the state. More specifically, my alternative conceptualization pays attention to how territorial politics can be organized under the particular spatiality of the state; and how that particular territorial politics can have an impact on the future restructuring of state spatiality. In particular, I suggest that inter-scalar territorial tensions can constitute an important driving force for the downward rescaling of the state. This argument is elaborated on the basis of theoretical discussions on territorial dimensions of capitalist regulation and their associated political processes.

Regulation is always place-based because the creation of certain social and institutional organizations or relations, which are required for regulatory purposes, can only take place within a certain geographical boundary. Also, the need for regulatory activities is often place-based in nature because this need emerges in response to certain place-based interests. This is related to the fact that some social agents are dependent on place-specific and spatially immobile socio-spatial organizations and relations (for example product markets, localized inter-firm relations, local labor markets and transportation networks) for their activities or reproduction (Cox and Mair, 1988).

Under capitalism, however, these localized socio-spatial organizations and their concomitant locally dependent interests are unlikely to remain unchallenged. The need for continuing accumulation not only creates sets of socio-spatial relations and organizations on which capitalists depend, but also promotes a restless search for new and more profitable ways of producing and circulating exchange values (Harvey, 1982; 1989; Cox and Mair, 1988). As a result, the capitalist space economy is ever changing and continually being restructured; this constantly threatens to undermine the localized regulatory fixes that some agents, at least, depend upon.

Given this condition, locally dependent actors may have strong interest in the reproduction and enhancement of those localized relations or organizations if they are to succeed in channeling wider flows of value through their social relations. As a consequence, the need for regulation may emerge to realize these place-based interests, while actors with place-dependent interests may pursue certain place-based regulatory projects. Place-dependent interests are based on certain place-specific social relations rooted in what Cox (1998a) called a ‘space of dependence’. Depending on the scales on which these place-specific social relations are laid out, the space of dependence can be defined at various geographical scales. Hence, different place-based interests can be mobilized at different geographical scales (for example local, urban, regional, national, etc.); accordingly, place-based regulatory projects can be differentially organized at different scales. Thus, various regulatory projects can take place at multiple geographical scales (for example, efforts to promote the growth of national industries by protecting domestic markets, efforts to provide industrial estates to firms in a locality, efforts to increase the regional tax base by attracting more businesses to a region, etc.).

Due to politically contested processes of regulation, however, place-based regulatory activities may cause the rise of territorialized political processes. Since the benefits of regulation are not evenly distributed across agents, implementing and enforcing particular regulatory rules on them inevitably entails conflict and contestation. As a result, successful regulatory projects require that the ensuing tensions are resolved. One way of resolving tensions is by building alliances (for example, growth coalitions, public–private partnerships, etc.) with other place-dependent actors within the same ‘space of dependence’. In the process of building alliances, and in order to secure them, place-dependent actors may mobilize territorially defined identities and interests through an appeal for unity based on territory, or through an appeal for local identity or symbols of local pride and tradition (Cox, 1997). Through such territorializing strategies and practices, in which the practices of inclusion and exclusion are conducted by controlling and defining areas (Sack, 1986), territoriality becomes an important instrument for controlling people and activities. Territorial units emerge as part of the socio-spatial system and become established and identified in social action and in the social consciousness (Passi, 1996; Jones and MacLeod, 2004). As territories are institutionalized, what Jones and MacLeod (2004) call ‘spaces of regionalism’ arise, and struggles and tensions that are internal to particular places become struggles among places (Cox, 1998b).

As place-based regulatory projects can be organized at various geographical scales, the processes of territorialization can also occur at various geographical scales. As current works (see Smith, 1993; Herod, 1997; Swyngedouw, 1997; Cox, 1998a; Marston, 2000) on the social construction of scale have implied, the scales at which certain territorial interests and identities are mobilized are neither pre-given nor fixed; instead, they are socially constructed through the territorializing practices of place-dependent actors in certain spaces of dependence. The practices of territorialized scale construction, however, are not confined within the spaces of dependence; they can be geographically extended. Facing regulatory conflicts and tensions, place-dependent actors may not only build alliances with other place-dependent actors within the same ‘space of dependence’, but may also mobilize sources of power outside the space of dependence. Through the practices of ‘jumping-scale’, the actors construct a ‘space of engagement’ within which they build alliances to support the regulatory projects that are aimed at securing the space of dependence (Cox, 1998a). With the construction of a space of engagement, new scales for regulation can be constructed. Especially in cases where territorializing strategies are used to cement alliances, territorial identities or interests can be defined at the scale that is constructed on the basis of the spatial boundary of the space of engagement. As such, territorialized political activities can be constructed at various geographical scales.

The territorial processes of regulation may have an impact on the rescaling of the state. According to Cox (2003), territorial coalitions may be engaged in trying to defend an existing position or in securing an enhanced position in the wider geographic divisions of labor. As they do so by promoting exports and attracting inward investment, and as markets expand geographically as a result of these efforts, the scale division of labor changes and new geographic divisions of labor are created on large geographic scales. Furthermore, as this process influences patterns of uneven development and results in a regulatory deficit in the existing system, it can lay the foundation for new scalar fixes in the state (Cox, 2003: 11–12).

The existing scalar configurations of the state can be more easily reorganized when different regulatory interests, constructed at different geographical scales, are in conflict with one another. As has been previously explained, place-dependent interests can be defined at various geographical scales, and different kinds of regulatory activities may be organized at different geographical scales on the basis of different place-dependent interests. These different regulatory activities, organized at different scales, may influence one another, whether positively or negatively. When regulatory projects at different scales are positively related to one another with similar interests and effects, they may be mutually facilitative, and the existing scalar configurations are less likely to be challenged.

On the other hand, when regulatory projects at different scales are in conflict with one another on the basis of different place-based interests defined at different geographical scales, and if none of the projects are powerful enough to repress or subordinate the other through material, institutional or ideological measures, these regulatory projects may become mutually constraining. When faced with such inter-scalar tension and their associated regulatory deficits, place-dependent actors at certain geographical scales may mobilize territorial politics by asserting national or regional (or local) claims in order to pursue their scale-specific regulatory projects by influencing or challenging the other regulatory projects that are organized at different geographical scales. Through such processes of territorialization, the inter-scalar tensions become highly acute. As a result, the regulatory capacity of the state could be greatly weakened, and a regulatory deficit may occur within the existing scalar framework; this could lead to regulatory actors at all scales facing problems in pursuing their regulatory projects. Given this, social actors may try to search for an institutional fix, and scalar restructuring of the state may serve as a viable option.

National–local tensions and decentralization in the context of the East Asian developmental state

This alternative approach to the rescaling of the state is especially relevant to East Asian developmental states because highly centralized — and often authoritarian — regulation by developmental states in East Asia is likely to be faced with inter-scalar tensions between national and local forces. As is widely recognized, East Asian countries such as Japan, South Korea and Taiwan have achieved rapid economic growth in the last four decades on the basis of active state intervention in economic activities (Amsden, 1989; Wade, 1990; Jenkins, 1991; Henderson and Appelbaum, 1992; Evans, 1995). From the territorial perspective on regulation that I propose in this article, the state's active promotion of national economic growth in East Asian countries may be interpreted as regulatory action that aims to pursue place-based interests defined at the national scale. Due to highly centralized regulatory structures, however, the policies of East Asian developmental states can have a significant impact on local interests.

Furthermore, the state's regulatory actions, which represent interests constructed at the national scale, may not necessarily serve the interests of localities. In particular, owing to the spatial selectivity of the state's industrial and regional policies, it is unlikely that the benefits of the state's centralized regulation are evenly distributed among all localities. This may result in uneven regional development. Given this, and under highly centralized regulatory structures, regions or localities in East Asian countries may compete against one another for resources, investment, and decision-making priorities from the national state. Regional economic gaps, however, can still increase due to the spatial selectivity of a state's policies. State-conditioned uneven regional development can result in the construction of differentiated territorial interests between more and less disadvantaged regions with regard to the national state's policies. Such differentiated territorial interests can be exploited by politicians and political parties, and one outcome could be the rise of territorial politics (for example, the politics of regionalism in South Korea, pork barrel politics in Japan, etc.).

Under these conditions, local economic interests can be territorially defined and mobilized, and anti-centralist discourses can emerge in localities that are disadvantaged by the state's regulatory activities. In this context, inter-scalar tensions between national and local forces may arise. When inter-scalar conflicts become extremely intense under certain situations, they may weaken the governing capacity and integrity of the national state in coordinating and regulating economic activities under a centralized, top-down regulatory system. This may further intensify those discourses that are in criticism of the centralized nature of state regulation. Also, those localities disadvantaged by the state's regulatory activities may organize forms of territorial politics that make a bid for the central government to decentralize regulatory power to more local levels of the state. Such bottom-up challenges may lead to a crisis of regulation, as well as to a crisis of legitimacy of the national ruling elites. In the face of such regulatory deficit and political crisis, and when forces at the national scale are not powerful enough to repress local challenges with ease, the national ruling elite may employ decentralization strategies as institutional fixes for the purpose of reducing their political burden.

Research context: decentralization projects in South Korea

Since the dawn of industrialization in the 1960s, the Korean state has developed a highly centralized internal organization. In its pursuit of state-led capitalist industrialization, the authoritarian regime tried to place everything under its control by setting up a highly centralized government structure. Since then, the centralization of political power and the bureaucratic structure has been the basic frame on which state regulation has been structured. This situation began to change from the 1990s with the advent of political democratization and its associated decentralization projects. There have been two different rounds of decentralization in South Korea in the last two decades.

The first round of decentralization was initiated with the introduction of the Local Autonomy system in 1991. Under this system, local councils were established with popularly elected council members, and state power began to be decentralized. Furthermore, from 1995, local officials such as mayors and governors began to be elected. Despite these changes, it has been said that decentralization and local autonomy in South Korea are still far from forming a perfect situation because the central government continues to hold substantial power over administration, finance and regulation. Furthermore, there have been various kinds of resistance to the decentralization project, coupled with hesitation to push for it on the part of some central officials.

The second round of decentralization started with the establishment of the Roh Moo-Hyun administration in February 2003. Since then, decentralization has been strongly re-emphasized, and has become one of the most important political projects of the South Korean government. In his inaugural speech, President Roh firmly emphasized the significance of decentralization and displayed his determination to promote it.

For the future of the country, the centralization and concentration in the Seoul metropolitan area can no longer be left unattended. Decentralization of power to the provinces and balanced national development have become tasks that cannot be put off any longer. The central and the provincial parts of the country should be developed in a harmonious and balanced manner. The provinces should design their own future autonomously, and the central government should help them out. I will press ahead with the task with strong resolve (President Roh Moo-Hyun, inaugural ceremony held on 25 February 2003).

Based on the strong push from the president, the Korean government has been very active in promoting decentralization of state power to local governments. In particular, to make the outcomes of decentralization more concrete, the government proposed the enactment of a special bill on decentralization; this was passed in the National Parliament in December 2003. The bill contains measures aimed at empowering local governments by bestowing on them more rights and responsibilities. More specifically, according to the bill, local governments would be given more rights over public education in their regions. In addition, an autonomous policy system was to be created to provide law enforcement to match the particular conditions of each region. Also, to further aid decentralization, the central government would readjust the level of local taxes and provide additional plans for providing sufficient funding to local governments. As a result of the enactment of this bill, it is expected that the decentralization of state power to local levels of the state will be further facilitated, and that the degree of local autonomy will be greatly increased.

Given this context, my research question is as follows: what have been the driving forces behind recent decentralization projects pursued by the Korean government? Based on the theoretical discussions provided above, I will answer this question by focusing on the ways in which the territorial politics of regulation have contributed to the downward rescaling of the state in South Korea. More specifically, I will examine in this article the following questions: How did the spatial selectivity of the top-down regulatory activities of the developmental state contribute to uneven regional development in South Korea? In what ways did state-conditioned uneven development result in the rise of inter-scalar tensions between the central government and those localities disadvantaged by the state's regulatory activities? How have national–local tensions (or central–provincial tensions) led to the rise of political activities that seek greater decentralization of state power to local governments?

State-conditioned uneven development and the politics of regionalism

Since the 1960s, South Korea has achieved rapid economic growth on the basis of an authoritarian and centralized regulatory system led by the developmental state. Despite its contribution to the country's economic success, this regulatory system has caused various forms of territorial politics that have either directly or indirectly challenged top-down regulatory activities. This is because the benefits of national economic growth have been unevenly distributed across regions due to the spatial selectivity inherent in the state's industrial and regional policies.

One of the most significant forms of territorial politics that stemmed from the spatial selectivity of state regulation has been the politics of regionalism. Since the early 1970s, one of the major cleavages in South Korean party politics has been regional in character; parties and politicians have been actively involved in issues of regional development in order to mobilize their respective support bases. As a result of this, different territorial interests have often been constructed in different regions or localities. The emergence of regionalist politics in South Korea was related to local political responses to uneven regional development that was conditioned by the spatial selectivity inherent in the state's regulatory activities. Since regionalist politics has provided a background condition for the recent rise in bottom-up challenges to the centralized form of the state, this section discusses how state-conditioned uneven regional development has led to the rise of the politics of regionalism in South Korea.1

The politics of regionalism in South Korea first emerged in the early 1970s when regions in the southeast (including Busan, Daegu, North Gyeongsang and South Gyeongsang) and the southwest (including Gwangju, North Jeolla and South Jeolla) showed contrasting voting patterns in the 1971 presidential election (Figure 1). The emergence of this electoral divide resulted from a specific combination of the politics of local economic development that was organized in the southeast and the southwest, together with territorialized party politics. These were responses to state-conditioned uneven regional development — especially the rising economic disparity between the southeast and the southwest that resulted from the spatial selectivity of state regulation — and the regionally biased nature of the national ruling elite (Park 2003b).

Figure 1.

Provinces of South Korea

The accumulation strategy pursued by the military regime in the 1960s focused on export-led industrialization based on the development of labor-intensive industries such as textiles, clothes, shoes, plywood and wigs. This export-led industrialization policy exhibited a degree of spatial selectivity. The government provided substantial financial and institutional support to the labor-intensive export industries; hence, regions that had a high concentration of these industries enjoyed the benefits of the industrialization process (Cho, 1991). Thus, the export-oriented industrialization strategy facilitated the development of the more urbanized and already industrialized regions such as Seoul and the southeast.2 The spatial selectivity of the state was further intensified by its regional policies, which privileged the interests of the capital region (including Seoul and its neighboring province, Gyeonggi) and the southeast. The government set up industrial complexes and physical infrastructure mainly in the capital and the southeastern regions in order to maximize the efficiency of regional policies by taking advantage of existing industrial facilities (KRIHS, 1996).

The spatial selectivity of the military regime's industrial and regional policies resulted in increased regional economic disparity. Throughout the 1960s, the capital region and the southeast were further industrialized, and became more prosperous due to the state's industrial and regional policies. The rest of the country, especially the southwest, became economically stagnant. Increasing regional economic disparity provided an important condition for the emergence of conflicting territorial interests with respect to the regulatory role played by the state.

The territorialization process was further intensified by biased regional representation in the state, expressed as the regionally biased nature of the national ruling elite. Given the lack of political legitimacy, the leaders of the military regime relied heavily on personal ties when recruiting bureaucrats. This process of building the national ruling elite, however, had a geographical dimension, as place-based social networks (for example, hometown networks, the alumni networks of some elite local high schools, etc.) have been culturally and historically predominant in Korea's social life (Hong, 1991). Since President Park and many of his core staff members originated from the southeast or graduated from elite local high schools in the southeast, it became customary for key positions in the government and ruling party to be preferentially assigned to people from that region. In fact, from 1963 to 1978, the largest share (40%) of high-level positions was filled by southeasterners.

In this context, Koreans began to believe that people from the southeast had better access to state power; hence, the interests of the southeast were likely to be better represented compared to the interests of other regions. Also, parties and local actors began to interpret regional economic disparities in South Korea as an outcome of biased regional representation in the state. In this sense, the spatial selectivity of state regulation and the regionally biased composition of the national ruling elite provided an important condition for political parties and local actors in constructing territorially defined interests with respect to government policies.

Local actors displayed contrasting reactions to government policies, and some local actors in the southeast and the southwest organized diverse political activities to promote local economic development. Within the highly centralized regulatory framework, most of their efforts were focused on mobilizing the power of the central government and generating more government resources for local development projects. Given the regionally biased nature of the national ruling elite, however, those in the southeast were more successful than those in the southwest when it came to mobilizing the power of the central government. As a result, those in the southwest began complaining about the regionally biased nature of government policies, while those in the southeast grew to be more supportive of the military regime and its policies.

One consequence of this was that political parties saw the possibility of using the issue of regional development to build their respective support bases. During elections, political parties used territorial strategies to gain votes by mobilizing territorial interests in the southeast and the southwest. The military regime and the ruling party mobilized pro-government sentiment in the southeast, which was the home region of President Park and some core staff members of the military regime. In contrast, the opposition party constructed an anti-government social base in the southwest by attributing the economic stagnation it was experiencing to the regionally biased nature of the military regime. Within this context, the southeast–southwest electoral divide emerged in the 1971 presidential election, and the politics of regionalism was born in South Korea. Furthermore, throughout the 1970s and the 1980s, this territorial cleavage was intensified by the widening economic gap between the southeast and the southwest, as well as by the violent and deadly subjugation of civil protest in Gwangju (called the Gwangju Uprising), the central city of the southwest, by military forces in May 1980.

Since the emergence of the southeast–southwest territorial cleavage in the 1970s, regionalist politics has had a great influence on South Korean politics. Regionalist discourses have significantly influenced the ways in which South Koreans represent and interpret the political and economic realities of their regions or localities. In particular, it was widely believed that the economic fortunes of a region or locality are heavily affected by the spatiality of the central government's policies; this, in turn, is determined by the regionally biased origins of the national ruling elite. Also, party politics have become more territorialized as political parties and factions have developed their support bases on the basis of particular regions. Further, electoral outcomes have been determined by the changing alignments of regionally based political groups and factions.

Political democratization and the growth of local forces

The politics of regionalism — a territorial politics that emerged in the context of state-conditioned uneven regional development — has had a significant impact on the rescaling of the Korean state in the sense that it has contributed to the rise of anti-centralist discourses. Under the authoritarian regimes, the territorial divide between the southeast and the southwest provided a good foundation on which opposing parties and politicians constructed their own social bases. Highlighting the problems of uneven regional development, the opposing political groups were active in criticizing the geographically unequal effects of the authoritarian regime's industrial and regional policies. Backing up the claims made by opposition parties and politicians, intellectuals and scholars began to be critical by pointing out the problems associated with the highly centralized regulatory system. They asserted that uneven regional development and interregional conflict resulted from the fact that almost all decision-making power was in the hands of a few influential people at the center (Kook, 1994: 146). With a growing popular aspiration for democratization in the 1980s, opposing political groups and intellectuals began to demand the decentralization of state power as a step toward this objective.

In this context, in the 1980s the military regime itself began to use slogans such as the ‘revitalization of localities’ and the ‘era of regions’ as a way of displaying favor for the increasing demand for decentralization (Kim, 1997: 262). In particular, under the increasing social pressure for democratization, the Chun regime publicly announced its plan to promote political decentralization as a means of legitimizing its power, by showing its intention to contribute to progress in democratization (Lee, 1995: 15). For example, the regime promised to re-establish the local autonomy system, which had been suspended by the Park regime since the early 1960s. It made this promise in the hope of diminishing popular demand for democratization, even though the intention turned out to be nothing more than a promise.

From the mid-1980s, there was an explosion of civil protest against military authoritarianism. Opposition politicians, democratization movement groups, students and workers formed a coalition against the military regime and organized various campaigns for democratization. The regime was weighed down under enormous pressure. Through the Declaration of Democratization on 29 June 1987, the regime promised to introduce various democratization procedures. One of these was greater decentralization of state power. In this context, the Korean government implemented the Local Autonomy System in 1991. With this system, each of the local governments was allowed to organize a municipal council of its own, with local residents electing council members. From 1995, the heads of local governments began to be popularly elected. Along with these procedures, local governments were given more autonomy and authority in matters of finance and decision-making, and the devolution of responsibility for economic development from central to local and provincial governments was accelerated.

Despite these changes to a more decentralized government structure, the governing system in South Korea still remains highly centralized. Most local governments still depend heavily on financial support from the central government (Kang, 1995). In 1994, for example, the average rate of financial self-support of local governments was approximately 64%, but local governments in rural areas generated only 25% of their finances on their own, on average. Twelve cities and 115 counties could not even pay the wages of their employees from their local tax revenue. Furthermore, the central government has had substantial control over how local governments utilize central government funds. Thus, the autonomy of local governments still remains rather limited, even with the introduction of the local autonomy system.

Even though decentralization resulting from the local autonomy system has been perceived by the Korean public as being limited and problematic, it has actually contributed to the growth of political forces calling for further decentralization. Under this system, in particular, local, bottom-up forces have become newly emancipated in terms of what they can do. Hence, local forces, which have a strong interest in enhancing or defending their place-dependent interests that have been constructed at local scales, have become more powerful and more active in local politics. In addition, when these local interests are negatively influenced by the top-down regulatory activities of the central government, the bottom-up forces have become more eager to organize political activities as a challenge to the central authorities.

The rise of national–local conflict and the politics of decentralization

Until the 1980s, the dominant form of territorial politics in South Korea had been the politics of regionalism based on the territorial divide between the southeast and the southwest. This was because economic disparity between the southeast and the southwest, which had increased due to the geographically unequal nature of the state's regional and industrial policies in the 1960s and the 1970s, gave a material foundation for the rise of regionalist politics. Since the late 1980s, however, the forms and nature of territorial politics have changed in relation to changes in the patterns of uneven regional development.

The growth of the capital region and the southeast in the 1960s and 1970s was basically due to the spatial selectivity of the state's accumulation strategies. As mentioned earlier, the state's industrial and regional policies favored the two regions because they had been historically endowed with more favorable conditions for the growth of export-oriented industries. Since the 1990s, however, this pattern of uneven regional development has changed due to changes in the spatial selectivity of the government's industrial and regional policies. Since the 1980s, information-related industries have become increasingly important as a result of rapid technological changes in the global economy. Given this context, from the late 1980s, the focus of the government's industrial policies began to shift from the development of heavy and chemical industries to the promotion of knowledge-based and technology-intensive industries. The government has paid greater attention to the development of new industries such as semiconductors, computers and electronics. This industrial restructuring has resulted in the concentration of high-tech industries in the Seoul Metropolitan Area due to the information-rich environment of the area. For example, most top universities, important R&D laboratories and information-related activities have been concentrated in the Seoul Metropolitan Area; hence, the Seoul Area has provided the most favorable conditions for the growth of high-tech industries. As a result, despite the existing regional policies that prohibit the location of industrial activities in the region, the Seoul Metropolitan Area has attracted many new industries and has become a specialized center of information-related and high-tech activities since the 1990s.

In addition, there have been significant changes in state spatial strategies, which are similar to what Brenner (2004) elaborated on in his discussion on the shift from Keynesian spatial logic to post-Keynesian spatial projects. An important but widely ignored element of the Korean developmental state was the spatial policy, which aimed at more balanced regional development. To avoid any misunderstanding, it needs to be clarified that the Korean developmental state certainly prioritized economic growth and capital accumulation over the distribution of wealth, but as a way of maintaining its political legitimacy it attempted to respond to the increasing concentration of economic activities in Seoul and its sprawling metropolitan areas — a side effect of South Korea's rapid economic growth in the 1960s and 1970s — and the resultant political contestations and challenges to the military regime. In this sense, the spatial policy can be seen as a hegemonic project deployed by the Korean developmental state. Since the early 1970s, the Korean government has actively endeavored to curtail the concentration of population and economic activities in the Seoul Metropolitan Area. It has done so through regional policies, including the construction of industrial complexes in the peripheral regions (especially in the southeast), and a strict prohibition on locating industrial activities in the Seoul Metropolitan Area.3 Due to this spatial policy, even though the Seoul Metropolitan Area kept attracting people and economic activities, its growth rate fell in the 1970s, while the economic growth of the southeast was accelerated (Table 1). As a result, the Seoul Metropolitan Area and the southeast became the two axes of industrialization in South Korea (Yim, 2003).

Table 1.  Regional distribution of manufacturing employment (1963–2002)
 19631972198219922002
  1. Source: Korean National Statistical Office (http://www.nso.go.kr)

Seoul Metropolitan Area
 Seoul26.030.820.613.710.7
 Incheon  6.97.67.7
 Gyeonggi9.213.016.624.828.2
 Total35.343.844.146.046.6
Southeast
 Busan14.915.715.810.06.6
 Daegu  6.85.24.8
 Ulsan    4.9
 North Gyeongsang13.910.56.07.77.8
 South Gyeongsang5.07.611.913.810.4
 Total33.833.840.436.634.4
Southwest
 Gwangju   1.61.9
 North Jeolla5.53.32.62.72.6
 South Jeolla6.76.73.32.82.6
 Total12.210.05.97.17.1
Chungcheong Region
 Deajeon   1.61.3
 North Chungcheong3.22.01.93.23.9
 South Chungcheong6.15.24.53.25.0
 Total9.37.26.48.110.2
Gangweon8.74.92.92.11.5
Jeju0.70.40.20.20.2
National total (%)100.0100.0100.0100.0100.0
Number462,0681,045,2012,186,6322,852,3712,712,310

This spatial strategy, however, has met growing challenges as international competition for national and regional economic growth became intense in the 1990s. In particular, since the early 1990s, certain government agencies and business associations — which are very sensitive to the interests of business, including the Ministry of Finance and Economy, the Federation of Korean Industries, the Korean Chamber of Commerce and Industry, etc. — have demanded the removal of those policy measures that restrict the location of economic activities in the Seoul Metropolitan Area. These groups have emphasized the important role of Seoul and the surrounding urban regions in leading the growth of the new high-tech industries. In other words, as national competitiveness becomes increasingly significant in the globalizing economy, the Seoul Metropolitan Area is no longer considered within the framework of domestic regional policy, which seeks to reduce the gap between Seoul and the less prosperous regions; instead, the region is increasingly being considered for its role as part of a system of world cities (Yim, 2003). Despite this new emphasis, the Korean government has not completely removed those policy measures aimed at decentralizing people and economic activities from the Seoul Metropolitan Area because of various forms of resistance from the peripheral regions, NGOs, and even some government agencies. Nevertheless, some regulations on the location of industrial activities in the Seoul Metropolitan Area have been greatly relaxed.

This change in state spatial strategies — putting more emphasis on the growth of strategic urban economies than balanced regional development — appears to be similar to what has happened in the Western European countries in relation to the shift from Keynesianism to post-Keynesianism. As in the Western European countries, this shift has provided a facilitative condition for the rescaling of the state in South Korea, but it should not be seen as a direct trigger for the recent decentralization policies of the Korean government. Rather, the decentralization of state power in South Korea needs to be understood in terms of the processes of inter-scalar territorial tensions, which have stemmed from the already existing anti-centralist discourses, changing patterns of uneven regional development, and growing activation of local forces under the institutional conditions of the local autonomy system; these have thrown significant challenges at the highly centralized structure of state power and institutions.

As a result of the shift in the spatial strategies of the Korean state, the pattern of uneven regional development has changed since the 1990s. As illustrated in Table 1, the share of manufacturing employment had continuously increased in the Seoul Metropolitan Area and the southeast until 1982. In 1982, the Seoul region and the southeast accounted for 44.1% and 40.4% of national manufacturing employment, respectively. Since then, however, the southeast's share has declined, while the share held by the Seoul Metropolitan Area has continued to flourish. From 1982 to 2002, the share of the Seoul Metropolitan Area in national manufacturing employment increased by 2.5% (from 44.1% to 46.6%), while that of the southeast declined by 6% (from 40.4% to 34.4%).

Given this changing pattern of uneven development since the 1990s, the gap between the southeast and the southwest has become less important as a political issue, but the gap between the Seoul Metropolitan Area and the rest of the country has attracted increasing popular and political attention. In this context, cities and regions outside the Seoul Metropolitan Area began to criticize the spatial selectivity inherent in the central government's industrial and regional policies, which had been considered the main reason for the increasing gap between the Seoul Metropolitan Area and the rest of the country. The local autonomy system has contributed to the rise of these local voices against the geographically unequal effects of centralized regulation. In particular, the popularly elected mayors and governors have been especially vocal in their criticism of centralized regulation. For example, on 26 May 2000, seven mayors and governors from the southeast and the southwest held a meeting in Daegu, a central city in the southeast. They publicly asked the central government for enhanced efforts to reduce the economic disparity between Seoul and the rest of the country by placing stricter restrictions on economic activities in the Seoul Metropolitan Area, and by relocating public research institutes and central government offices from Seoul to the peripheral provinces and cities (‘Mayors and governors from the SE and the SW asked for more even regional development’Hankyoreh, 27 May 2000).

The central government, however, could not accept these requests from the local governments because it had become much more inclined to view the Seoul Metropolitan Area as an engine driving the national economy in the globalizing economy after the 1997 financial crisis. In other words, neoliberal and market-oriented ideologies have been widely accepted among Korean policymakers and bureaucrats in the course of struggling for national economic recovery under the IMF bailout program that followed the economic crisis; hence, the growth of Seoul has been increasingly viewed as essential for national economic growth. In this context, local requests for the dispersion of economic activities from Seoul have been viewed as very locally based and parochial. Fundamentally, national actors and local actors were seen as having ideas that were in vast contrast to the goals of the government's regional policies. Of course, cities and provinces in the Seoul Metropolitan Area generally share the same interests as national actors with regard to the growing role of this area in the national economy; however, all other cities and provinces have interests that conflict with those of the central government. This national–local tension has intensified even more as some central officials, especially those from the Ministry of Finance and Economy, have promoted further liberalization of regulations on economic activities in the Seoul Metropolitan Area. They have also called for the liberalization of some new development projects, such as the free economic zone, in the Seoul Metropolitan Area in order to upgrade the global competitiveness of the Seoul region (Park, 2005).

Given this, cities and provinces outside the Seoul Metropolitan Area have firmly resisted the central government's attempts to abandon the existing regional policies that aim for more balanced regional development by restricting economic concentration in the Seoul Metropolitan Area. In addition, under the influences of anti-centralist discourses that were developed in the context of the politics of regionalism and the anti-dictatorship campaigns of the 1970s and 1980s, local actors began to ask for further decentralization of state power to more local levels of the state as a solution to resolving the problems of uneven regional development. Local intellectuals, mostly professors from local universities who have been powerfully influenced by the theories of endogenous regional development, began to raise their voices against the centralized regulatory system. For example, in September 2001, this group announced the ‘Declaration by the national intellectuals asking for decentralization’ with the signatures of 2,757 intellectuals across the country. In this declaration, they requested greater and more drastic decentralization of state power to the local governments in order to achieve more uniform regional development, through the establishment of a fully fledged local autonomy system. Following this event, some of these intellectuals established the Center for Decentralization Movement as a means for organizing political campaigns and rallies that called for decentralization.

Under such pressure, decentralization became an important political issue in the period of the presidential electoral campaigns in 2002. Roh Moo-Hyun, the presidential candidate from the ruling Democratic Party, publicly promised to promote further decentralization policies for more balanced regional development in exchange for votes. In this context, when President Roh Moo-Hyun took office in February 2003, he declared decentralization one of the 10 major goals of the new administration, and actively pushed for a decentralization drive. On 29 December 2003, the special bill for decentralization was passed by the National Assembly, along with two other bills — the special bill for the construction of a new administrative capital and the special bill for balanced regional development — designed in the interest of propagating more balanced regional development.4 Due to diverse and fervent forms of resistance from national bureaucrats, however, it is still uncertain if South Korea can establish a highly decentralized regulatory system. Also, there is no guarantee that the decentralization policy will promote more balanced regional development. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that decentralization has been one of the most important political trends in South Korea in recent years.

Conclusion

In this article, I have explored the ways in which downward rescaling of the state has taken place in South Korea, and the driving forces behind the recent decentralization projects pursued by the Korean government. In South Korea, decentralization processes have been deeply influenced by the territorial politics that have emerged in response to the spatial selectivity of the state's top-down regulations. Uneven regional development has been a feature in South Korea since the Japanese colonial period, but it has been exacerbated by the spatial selectivity inherent in the Korean developmental state's industrial and regional policies. As a result of state-conditioned uneven regional development, territorial politics developed, and new scalar discourses were articulated in the interest of territorially defined political identities in the 1970s and 1980s. With the success of social movements for democratization in the 1980s, the local autonomy system was introduced in the early 1990s as a way of enhancing political democratization. In addition, the recent decentralization project pursued by the Roh Moo-Hyun administration is an outcome of (1) increasing economic disparity between the Seoul Metropolitan Area and the rest of the country, conditioned by the changes in the Korean developmental state's spatial strategies — from emphasizing more balanced regional development to encouraging the further development of strategic cities and regions; and (2) bottom-up challenges to the new spatial strategies of the state and the still highly centralized regulatory activities of the state; these have been perceived, under the influences of anti-centralist discourses, by many local actors as being the main reason for uneven regional development.

Theoretically, in this article, I borrow from Brenner's (2004) recent contribution to the understanding of state space. His work focuses on the dialectical relationship between the existing spatiality of the state and those political forces that emerge with the intention of changing state spatiality, and their influences on the formation of a new spatiality of the state. In order to address the dialectical relationship at a more concrete level, I have paid attention to how territorial politics can be organized under the particular spatiality of the state, and how that particular territorial politics can have an impact on the future restructuring of state spatiality. I have highlighted the active role of space and territory in the rescaling of the state.

In particular, following Cox (2003), I suggest that space or territory does not merely lie passive to wider political, economic and regulatory changes; instead, spatial, scalar or territorial relations can have specific causal powers of their own with respect to regulatory processes. Specifically, I argue that the territoriality of regulation and its associated territorial politics can have a significant impact on the scalar restructuring of the state. Due to the territoriality of regulatory processes, certain territorial interests or identities can be politically mobilized in regulatory processes, and territorial politics may emerge. Certain forms of territorial politics can challenge the existing scalar configuration; especially when regulatory processes are highly centralized at the national scale, the benefits of national-scale regulation can be unevenly distributed to localities due to spatial selectivity. To protect or enhance their place-dependent interests, social actors in those localities disadvantaged by top-down regulation can organize territorial politics that aim to influence the regulatory activities of national actors. In such political processes, when national–local tensions become intense, and when bottom-up forces can organize a wider alliance to challenge the central forces, the national ruling elite can use the strategy of decentralization to maintain its political legitimacy. One outcome of this is the downward rescaling of the state.

Footnotes

  • 1

    For more detailed discussions on the historical origin of the politics of regionalism in South Korea, refer to Park (2003b).

  • 2

    Since the Japanese colonial period, Seoul and the southeast have been the most industrialized regions in South Korea. This regional pattern of manufacturing development can be explained by two historical conditions. First, as the Japanese promoted colonial industrial development along the railway between Seoul and Busan, a port city in the southeast, big cities along the route such as Seoul, Daegu and Busan experienced industrial development from the 1920s. Second, the Korean War (1950–3) further facilitated industrial development in the southeast. During the war, almost all industrial facilities in South Korea were destroyed. The southern areas of the southeast, including Daegu and Busan, however, were left relatively undamaged by war.

  • 3

    The regional policies utilized by the Korean government to meet these ends have included the construction of local industrial estates (1970), the designation of green belts to restrict further development in already developed areas (1973), the relocation of universities from the Seoul Metropolitan Area (1973), the relocation of public organizations and institutions (1973), the Growth Control and Management Law for the Capital Region (1982), the establishment of rural industrial parks (1983), the Industrial Location and Development Act (1990), the Industrial Redistribution and Establishment of Factories Act (1990), and the Regional Balanced Development and Promotion of Local Small- and Medium-sized Firms Law (1994), to name a few strategies (Ko, 2000).

  • 4

    Since then, these three bills have been collectively called the ‘3 special bills for balanced regional development’.

Ancillary